The Protestant Deformation
Found this on the Winter 2005 edition of The American Interest: "The Protestant Deformation", by James Kurth. (Unfortunately, it's subscription only; which also means that I shouldn't reproduce the whole article here.) The article is about the remote religious sources of US Foreign Policy--and I'm sure others more learned about that will have more to say. One bit that caught my eye is Kurth's account of the Protestant Reformation as a rebellion against hierarchy and community in the matter of salvation, and the devolution of the Protestant Reformation into the Protestant Deformation in six stages, which I reproduce below for the interested reader.
Hierarchy and Community
Protestantism was in its origins a protest against the form that the Christian religion had taken in the Roman Catholicism of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Reformation was an effort to return the Christian religion to the original faith expressed in the New Covenant, or New Testament, of the Bible. Protestant reformers objected to numerous features of the Roman Catholic Church, including such familiar ones as the authority of the Pope, the role of the Virgin Mary, and the meaning and practice of indulgences. But the really central, fundamental issues involved the way the Christian believer reached a state of salvation, and the roles that the priestly hierarchy and the parish community played in the process. The Roman Catholic Church taught that the believer reached salvation through the mediation of the priestly hierarchy and participation in the parish community's sacraments and rituals. In combination, these yielded the surest path to salvation.
The Protestant reformers rebelled against the idea that the believer achieves salvation through a hierarchy or a community, or even the two in combination. Although many Protestant reformers accepted hierarchy and community for certain purposes, such as church governance and other collective undertakings, they rejected them as a means of reaching the state of salvation. Rather, they asserted that the believer receives salvation through an act of grace by God. This grace produces in its recipient the faith in God and in salvation that converts him into a believer.
The believer can achieve greater knowledge of God, however, through his reading of the Holy Scriptures. The Protestant reformers placed great emphasis on the Word, but they held that interpreting the Bible did not necessarily require the intercession of a hierarchy or a community. Indeed, these might actually impede the individual believer in reaching the right interpretation.
All religions are unique, but Protestantism is more unique than all the others. No other major religion is so critical of hierarchy and community or of the traditions and customs that go with them. Indeed, most other religions are based upon hierarchy or community: in addition to Roman Catholicism, also Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism and even, to a degree, Buddhism. At its doctrinal base, however, Protestantism-essentially a rejection of Roman Catholicism-is anti-hierarchy and anti-community. The early Protestant reformers sought to remove hierarchy and community so that the individual Christian believer could have a direct relationship with God-more accurately and subtly, a relationship with God directly through the second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, and so that he could receive salvation from God directly through the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
The removal of hierarchy and community, traditions and customs - of any earthly intermediaries between the individual and God - strips away, at least for the most important purposes, any local, parochial, cultural or national characteristics of the believer. In principle, grace, faith and salvation can be received by anyone in the world; they are truly universal, or catholic (in the original sense of that term). The Protestant reformers thus saw the vast array of cultures and nations through a perspective that was, in effect, even more universal than that of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the three centuries after the Reformation, the Protestant rejection of hierarchy and community in regard to salvation spread to other domains of life as well. Some Protestant churches came to reject hierarchy and community in church governance and other collective undertakings. This was especially the case in the new United States, where the conjunction of the open frontier and the disestablishment of state churches enabled the flourishing of new, unstructured and unconstraining denominations.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the Protestant rejection of hierarchy and community had also spread to important arenas of temporal or secular life. Again, this was especially the case in the United States. In the economic arena, the elimination of hierarchy (monopoly or oligopoly) and community (guilds or trade restrictions) meant the establishment of the free market. In the political arena, the elimination of hierarchy (monarchy or aristocracy) and community (traditions and customs) meant the establishment of liberal democracy.
However, the free market could not be so free, nor liberal democracy so liberal, that they became anarchic. Although economic and political life could no longer be ordered by hierarchy and community, by tradition and custom, they had to be ordered by something. That something came to reflect the Protestant emphasis on written words and arose in the form of written covenants between individual Protestant believers. In the economic arena, this was the written contract; in the political arena, it was the written constitution.
The Protestant Reformation was thus giving birth to what by the early 20th century would become the American Creed. The fundamental elements of that secular creed - liberal democracy, free markets, constitutionalism and the rule of law - were already fully in place in the United States in the early 19th century. This spread of the Protestant rejection of hierarchy and community from the arena of salvation to the arenas of economics and politics was driven by a particular inner dynamic, or rather decline, within the Protestant faith itself. Today, almost half a millennium after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, we can discern six stages of what may be called the Protestant declension.
The Protestant Declension
Stage 1: Salvation by grace. At the personal level, the original Protestant (and, as the reformers saw it, the original Christian) experience is that of a direct, loving and saving relationship between the believer and God. This direct relationship and state of salvation are brought about by God, through his sovereign grace, and not by the person through his own works. This is the experience of being "born again" into a new life.
Obviously, any intermediaries, traditions or customs that could stand in the way of this direct relationship must be swept aside. The original Protestant and born-again Christian experiences his new life as a tabula rasa that enables him to release previously constrained energies and to focus them intensely on new undertakings. This in part explains the great energy and efficacy of many newly Christian persons. When the number of such persons is greatly multiplied, as it was at the time of the Reformation, it also in part explains the great energy and efficacy of some newly-Protestant nations (think of the Netherlands, England and Sweden in the 16th and 17th centuries).
Stage 2: Grace evidenced through work. A serious problem soon arises; indeed, it arises within the very next generation. The children of the original born-again Protestants are born into a Protestant family and church, but they themselves may not be born-again Protestants who have personally experienced the direct relationship with God and the state of salvation that grace brings. As Max Weber famously discussed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, this can give rise to great anxiety about the spiritual state of second-generation Protestants.
For some in Protestant churches, especially the Anglican and Lutheran state churches of Europe but even the Episcopal and Lutheran churches in America, there was a solution close at hand. These churches had remained hierarchical (with the Pope replaced by the state monarch) and even somewhat communal. Perhaps, in some way that was not theologically clear but that was psychologically reassuring, the state of salvation could be reached by participation in the rituals and works of the church. In these churches, therefore, the focus upon grace gradually shifted in practice to a focus upon works, as had been the case in the Roman Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation.
However, for persons in other Protestant churches, especially those known as the Reformed churches - the Calvinist churches of Europe as well as the Presbyterian and Congregational churches in America - the solution to the dilemma of Protestants who were "born in" but not "born again" had to be a different one. The stricter Reformed theology of these churches did not easily permit a diminished emphasis on the necessity of grace. Further, their relative absence of hierarchical and communal features meant that they had a less developed structure for the exercise of rituals and works. And yet, without the personal experience of grace, what evidence was there that second-generation, or birth-right, Protestants had received it?
As Weber discussed, the evidence for grace became a particular and peculiar kind of works: not the performance of works in the church, but the success of work in the world. This was how the Protestant ethic became the capitalist spirit. Because the Reformed churches had reformed away the legitimacy of hierarchy, community, tradition and custom, work in the world could be unconstrained by these obstacles. Thus, the second- and later-generation Reformed Protestants could experience worldly life and worldly work as a tabula rasa. This experience enabled these generations also to experience a release of previously constrained energies and to focus intently on new undertakings.
Indeed, this version of Protestantism in its worldly work was so focused that it became methodical and systematic in previously unseen ways. This experience in part explains the great energy and efficacy of some second- and later-generation Reformed Protestants. Again, when the number of such persons was large, it also in part explains the great energy and efficacy of established Protestant nations, not just for the second generation, but for several generations thereafter (for example, the Netherlands and Sweden until the 18th century; England, Scotland and America until the late 19th century).
Stage 3: Salvation by works. After several generations of this kind of Reformed Protestantism, a certain Protestant culture even with traditions and customs, developed. The number of Protestants who had experienced the culture but not the grace greatly increased. Even in the Reformed churches (Calvinist, Presbyterian, Congregational) the idea of the necessity of grace began to fade. Work in the world was no longer seen as a sign of grace but as a good in itself. Works as a good became a new version of good works.
Stage 4: The unitarian transformation. As the focus on grace faded, so too did the focus upon the agencies of grace, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Thus Reformed Protestantism, with its highly articulated trinitarian doctrine, turned into unitarianism, with its abstract concept of a Supreme Being or Divine Providence. Unitarianism was an actual denomination, of course, complete with its own churches, but it was also a more widely held theology and philosophy. This was the stage in the Protestant declension that some of the American political elite, including some of the Founding Fathers, had reached by the end of the 18th century. Thus the public documents of that time frequently made reference to the Supreme Being or Divine Providence and rarely to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.
Stage 5: The American Creed. The fifth stage in the Protestant declension was reached when the abstract and remote God, the Supreme Being or Divine Providence, disappeared altogether. Now the various Protestant creeds were replaced by the American Creed, which reached its fullest articulation in the first half of the 20th century. The elements of the American Creed were free markets and equal opportunity, free elections and liberal democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law. The American Creed definitely did not include as elements hierarchy, community, tradition and custom. Although the American Creed was not itself Protestant, it was clearly the product of a Protestant culture - a sort of secularized version of Protestantism as it had come down through its fourth declension.
Stage 6: Universal human rights. The sixth and final stage in the Protestant declension was reached only in the 1970s, essentially in the last two generations. Now the American Creed was replaced by the universal conception of human rights. More accurately, the elements of the American Creed were generalized into universal goods. Then in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist ideology, and with the stagnation of the German "social market" and Japanese "organized capitalism", every familiar alternative to American economic and political conceptions seemed discredited. America had thus brought the world to "the End of History."